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L.L. Bean just updated their generous return policy. For over a century, they offered a lifetime return policy. This meant customers could return or exchange L.L. Bean merchandise at any time for any reason – even years after the initial purchase date. In a letter to customers Friday morning, the company said it has updated its return policy to give customers one year to return purchases, with a receipt:

“Increasingly, a small, but growing number of customers has been interpreting our guarantee well beyond its original intent. Some view it as a lifetime product replacement program, expecting refunds for heavily worn products used over many years. Others seek refunds for products that have been purchased through third parties, such as at yard sales."

I am an L.L. Bean customer. I own two pairs of their iconic Bean Boots and I love them. A lot. When I got my first pair and I opened the box, there was a small card in there telling me the name of the person who hand-stitched my boots (I thanked them aloud) and there was also a lifetime guarantee. Holy cow – LIFETIME? I was impressed. I was also impressed with their quality and figured if they did fall apart it would be from wear and tear only. I thought repairs, sure. But I certainly wouldn’t expect to return them for a full refund – or a brand new pair. But apparently other people did just that – and then some! Over the past 5 years the bad returns have costed L.L. Bean $250 million in returns classified as “destroy quality.”

This got me thinking. I worked retail in high school (at a fairly large department store chain) and it was common practice that “the customer is always right.” I was often surprised at the things people tried to return. Two personal favorites were a pair of very worn children’s pajamas, and a baby outfit that hadn’t been carried in the store for 7 years. (I knew it had been that long because the original tag was still on it. And yes, the store took it back) As a high school student, it was hard for me to bite my tongue at these returns. They were so obviously wrong. Your kid outgrew the pajamas – they were not defective. By the looks of them they were his favorite pair. So I cannot even imagine how the L.L. Bean employees kept a straight face. People returning things that were decades old or heavily worn… According to an L.L. Bean customer service manager, “You’re 100 percent customer-focused to do what’s right for the person in front of you and you do it with a smile. And that’s what we do, day in and day out.”

This return policy is probably not what the founder, Leon Leonwood Bean originally had in mind. In 1912 he sold his first 100 pairs of hunting boots and 90 came back defective. He refunded every unhappy customer and set out to make a better boot. And that commitment to quality and customer satisfaction has been the cornerstone of L.L. Bean ever since. However, a small group of people took that generosity and began to interpret the guarantee as a lifetime product replacement program, which was never its intent.

I used to think that the L.L. Bean refund policy said everything about the company’s commitment to their product. But now I realize it says a lot more about the customers. I wonder what L.L Bean himself would think of it all. I imagine he’d say, “this is why we can’t have nice things.”